September 6, 2009

I’ve talked here before about the use of the open-source model for software development.  Now a group of researchers at Stanford has put together an open-source camera, dubbed “Frankencamera”, a prototype for what they hope will turn into a product in the near future.

Since the advent of the microprocessor, more and more of our everyday gadgets have acquired digital processing capability.  Many functions of your car that once would have been electro-mechanical devices are now controlled by computers: the anti-lock braking system or the engine timing, for example. Similarly, our microwave ovens, toasters, TV sets, and cameras all depend on microprocessors.  One of the implications of this is that, as with a more traditional computer, the available functionality of the device depends on both hardware and software.

To date, most of these devices have been closed systems.  The Stanford team believes that, by providing an open camera architecture, they can enable a wider community to develop software to provide new camera functions.  The software might take the form of extensions or plugins, such as the ones that have proved very popular and successful with the Mozilla Firefox Web browser, or they might provide entirely new capabilities.  One idea that has been examined, for example, is to provide software that will enable images to be captured in situations of extreme lighting contrast (large differences between the brightest and dimmest parts of the image).  Another is to enhance video images by combining them with very high-resolution still images.  A possibility that occurs to me is for security or surveillance applications: the camera might, by default, record an image every 30 seconds, but switch to every second if the change from one image to the next exceeded some threshold.

In general, I think the basic idea of opening the software for a variety of devices is most interesting, and could produce some very useful capabilities.  I’ve already mentioned the example of Firefox extensions, which make it possible to customize the browser to an individual’s needs.  There are some networking devices (such as the Linksys WRT54GL) whose firmware is based on the open-source Linux operating system; independent developers have provided alternative firmware that extends the capabilities of the device.  And there are some “car hackers”, who experiment with the software in their cars’ microprocessors.  Or, to shift to a different sort of open source, there is the Wikipedia online encyclopedia, which currently has 3,026,298 articles (in the English edition), contributed by more than 10 million registered users.

One of the things that the Internet makes possible is the growth of self-organizing communities of people who share a common interest, relatively untrammeled by geography.  I think we still have some surprises to come.

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